Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Carolyn Wyman, author of "Spam: A Biography," samples
some of the local fare, including Spam musubi, a Spam
bento and eggplant tempura stuffed with Spam, all
from Caryn's Okazuya on Young Street.

True love

How a little can of
processed meat became a
loving member of the family

By Gary C.W. Chun

It was a meeting that was fated to happen: Carolyn Wyman and Spam musubi. The author of "Spam: A Biography" (Harcourt Brace, 1999) devoted some space in her breezily written book to Hawaii's abiding love for the ubiquitous canned meat, but she had never tasted Spam in its most beloved island incarnation.

This little hole in her experience was remedied Friday, a few hours before she was to give a talk about her book at Barnes & Noble.

She took a bite of the generous block of rice, topped with Spam and wrapped in nori, and gave her professional opinion after a couple of thoughtful chews. "That's great," she said. "The proportion is just right, and the rice is the perfect complement."

She also sampled a bit of a tempura-covered eggplant stuffed with Spam. "Anything is good in tempura," she said, "and this works because the eggplant is bland and is a nice contrasting texture with the Spam, with the salt and fat flavor.

"People aren't afraid to just eat here!" Wyman said with enthusiasm, and that's a good thing to her. As a nationally syndicated food columnist, she's always interested in new food products, "not the latest trends with chefs using arugula and the like."

It's processed, supermarket American food culture that's Wyman's passion, "the food business, funky food and pop culture," she said. And, yes, Wyman did, in fact, grow up eating Spam.

"My father ate it when he served in the Philippines in wartime," said the Connecticut native, "and my mom used it a lot, making sandwiches with slices of Spam straight from the can, Wonder Bread and mayonnaise," she said. "In fact, I didn't have it fried until I was over 21, which was a major revelation to me -- it tasted even better!

"Also, I remember when I first saw and tasted ham, I thought, 'What the heck is this?' It was tough and didn't have the buttery flavor of the Spam I loved."

Wyman's husband doesn't share her tastes, but when she was still single, she would cook up a soul-satisfying combination of Spam, baked beans and pineapple. "It's a wonderful dish. I would make it using an entire can, sliced up, which would make enough for four servings. I'd have it for dinner and freeze the other three servings for later."

She can boil America's obsession with Spam down to a simple truth: It's easy to deal with.

"We're basically a nation of cooking illiterates. Spam makes more sense to us because it doesn't spoil (a man has actually eaten a can of 25-year-old Spam -- and lived), it's consistent in nature, you can always count on it, you need no cooking ability, and it has all the building blocks of tasty food, which are fat, salt and sugar."

It's obvious that Wyman is crazy for Spam. "It's a pop culture icon," she said. "Food is the one object of the pop culture that we actually ingest, associate it with motherhood and nurturing, especially memories associated with this crazy little canned meat."

Some of the people she interviewed for her book would get weepy over their Spam memories, "how the food was associated with going fishing with Dad when they were kids, cooking up a Spam-and-eggs breakfast."

Of all the processed foods she's written about, "Spam is the more interesting. There's more going on with it -- the different ways of preparing it and not just its culinary history, but its cultural life as well."

Spam has always been the butt of jokes and parodies -- the meat that could not be destroyed! American soldiers in the '40s sliced it up to use as ad hoc playing cards. It also made for a great gun lubricant and substitute for Sterno. The cast of Monty Python made it "a literary object," turning their parents' wartime dilemma of finding Spam in everything they ate into the comedy skit that made "Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam ..." a favorite musical phrase. Computer geeks, in turn, used that bit of loony inspiration to describe the sending and receiving of unwanted e-mail as "spamming."

Wyman notes the people she's met who have made the oddest uses of Spam: a man who juggles blocks of Spam, then tastes them during his act ("He told me he can't use Treet because it's too greasy -- which means Spam is a quality product!") and the X-ray technician who used slices as an magnetic resonance imaging marker.

What Hormel, maker of Spam, should do, Wyman recommends, is proudly claim Spam's place as a fine artificial food.

As late as 1997, Hormel was still trying to market Spam as a pseudo-natural foodstuff. "The can would picture this fake ham with cloves stuck in it. I mean, what is that? Even the name sounds dated -- it's almost ham, it's not ham, what? In this age that touts 'pure and natural,' here's this perfectly rectangular food product that looks like nothing that would be grazing in a field!"

Besides, Spam just isn't that bad, she said. The ingredients -- salt, sugar, water, ham, pork shoulder and sodium nitrate, plus a gel coating that's created while it's cooked in the can -- "compared to the ingredient lists of other convenience foods, is practically pure as the driven snow!"

Here in Hawaii, the practical love for Spam outweighs the kitsch factor of this American icon. We annually eat around 3 pounds per person, eight times the national average. "In other places, you just cannot eat it in public and polite company -- only in Austin, Minn. (Spam's hometown), here and Guam," Wyman said. "It's sorta like Jell-O (not surprisingly, the subject of her next book, due for fall release): People eat it in the comfort of their homes, while chefs generally look down on it.

"The foods we eat in the home, that's the kind we have the most affection for -- it's soul food, it's comfort food. This is what real American eating and cooking is all about."

But even Wyman has her standards concerning Spam. She can abide low-sodium Spam and Spam Lite -- but Turkey Spam? "Turkey Spam tries to appeal to those who wouldn't generally eat Spam -- but I think it's just Spamploitation."

Spam is the
food of champions

A great Spam confluence took place this weekend right here in Honolulu.

Not only was Spam author Carolyn Wyman in town, but the Spamman was here at the same time. Coincidence? I think not!

Triathlete Bob Brubaker from Oviedo, Fla., a k a "Spamman," is a triathlete whose corporate sponsor is Spam.

He and his wife, Jan, stopped by on their way to the Big Island for the Ironman Triathlon.

Brubaker Spam provides him with protein and beneficial fat needed in his training. "I love the product and am not ashamed to say that I really eat it three to four times per week and feel it helps me."

Brubaker is competing this year on a mission of asthma awareness. An asthmatic himself, Brubaker said he hopes to inspire children who think they cannot be active like him. "That's why I am competing this year -- for the kids."

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